Sunday, October 03, 2010

Lion of the Nation

Even as I write this review, I received news of the death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's wife, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo. But what does that have to do with the book, "The Singapore Lion", on the life of Singapore's long-time Foreign Minister, Mr Sinnathamby Rajaratnam? Everything, I suppose, because Mr Lee became a significant part of Mr Rajaratnam's life, and through Mr Lee, Mrs Lee would also have figured greatly too. I am only speculating though because that second part of Mr Rajaratnam's story has yet to be told in Irene Ng's biography of Mr Rajaratnam.

"The Singapore Lion" chronicles the life of one of the founding fathers of modern Singapore, tracing his life from his beginnings growing up in Seremban to the time when Singapore attained merger with Malaya to form Malaysia. Mr Rajaratnam was a Ceylonese Tamil, whose family migrated to Malaysia to escape the poverty of his homeland. His father eventually made well in Seremban, which enabled Mr Rajaratnam to proceed to study Law in London. This book begins with an account of his growing up in Seremban and about the hard life of the rubber tappers which his father supervised. So Mr Rajaratnam has known days of want and observed the lot of the poor. It describes him as a quiet and sensitive person totally devoted to books. He loved books, and he devoured them like a Lion (though this is not why the book is so titled). This is perhaps the single unchanging  aspect of Mr Rajaratnam throughout his life. Indeed, it would contribute towards his single ability to weave words into power language in his struggle to build a Singapore according to his ideals.

The book gives much space to his life in London, and especially his interaction with people who believed passionately in communism. The Left Book Club was to be the main vehicle for him to wade into the world of Leftism, where he formed friendships with people of like mind. His own passion about social consciousness in life and society, and his beginning to write on the same eventually led him to abandon his studies in Law, dashing the hopes of his father. As events would have it, the Germans began to bomb London during the Second World War and Mr Rajaratnam, who was not able to make his way back to Malaya, stayed in London, dodging bombs and trying to eck out a living for himself and his Hungarian wife, Piroska.

The second major part of Mr Rajaratnam's life is recounted in his days as a journalist, first with the Singapore Standard and later, the Straits Times. By now, he had begun to agitate for the abolition of British colonial rule. The book describes in great detail his life as a journalist, perhaps because the author, also a journalist, shares with Mr Rajaratnam the love for the word and world of journalism.

A third phase of Mr Rajaratnam's life began when he formed a close association with Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the shared objective of getting rid of the colonial government, and working for an independent Malaya. Mr Rajaratnam had always believed that independence had to mean the integration of Singapore into the then Malaya to form a Malaysian Malaysia, void of racial segregation or any special consideration for one race over another. The idea of equality, regardless of race, language or religion, was his creed, which he fought so valiantly for. Mr Rajaratnam eventually gave up his career as a journalist to become a politician, finding common cause with people like Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and yet able to work with erstwhile communists such as Lim Chin Siong. The book describes Mr Rajaratnam's mighty and valiant hands with words, and how he would make use of his powerful pen (actually his typewriter) to challenge, debunk and defend his ideals and those of the PAP, like a fearless and fearsome Lion, the Singapore Lion.

The book is written in a sympathetic manner, where Mr Rajaratnam failings, if there are any, are explained in the context of the times, the difficulties and challenges. This is not surprisingly as the author has known Mr Rajaratnam both at the professional level and a personal level. Nevertheless, the treatment of his life is both sensitive and factual. It is obvious that much research has gone into the writing of this book.

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